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Paying Less for Your Perfect Cruise: A How-To Guide

Updated on February 22, 2010

The New Way to Travel

Taking a vacation on a cruise ship is much different from a traditional vacation. Where else but on a cruise ship are almost all expenses paid, someone else takes you around, and you have constant access to food, pools, and room service?

Cruises already aren't exactly cheap; why bother to save money on them?

I'll answer your question with another one. Why on earth would you spend more money than you had to on anything? Cruises are no different. Only spend money for what will enjoy. This guide will help you keep all the excitement of the cruise, while reducing its overall cost.

UPDATE: February 17, 2008

I am actually going on a last-minute cruise for my Spring Break in a few weeks. I used VacationsToGo, which specializes in cruise bargains. The website itself looks a little tacky, but it's quite reputable and was a big help in finding the best cruise.

Also, I'm cruising Carnival this time, which I have never done before. I know that they are especially bad about nickle and diming you, so I will update this hub after I return about all the ways they will get money from you, if you aren't vigilant.

As always, thanks for the comments! If you have any more tips for me, leave them in the comments section, and I will post them here and link back to you. Thanks!

The Most Popular Cruise Lines

  • Carnival: As previously mentioned, the quintessential college cruise line. Cheap, the trips usually are only 3-5 nights, and not very glamorous.
  • Crystal: A higher-end line that has a reputation as offering great service.
  • Disney: As one might guess, the ultimate in family vacations, with children's areas everywhere, and a general family-friendly policy.
  • Holland America: a mid-priced ship that's a bit pricier than Royal Caribbean, comfortable for the middle-aged crowd and families with older children.
  • Princess: a mid-priced ship comfortable for everyone, also operated by the Carnival cruise line.
  • Royal Caribbean: a mid-priced ship that operates a large fleet. Good for just about anyone.
  • Windstar: A high-end experience on a tiny (by cruise standards) ship that is steered with computer-guided sails!

Varieties in the Cruise Industry

Much like at a hotel or restaurant, prices of cruises vary dramatically, from $250 for a three-night cruise to $1500. To enjoy yourself fully, you might be willing to pay a little more, but don't get caught up buying the most expensive tickets you can possibly afford. Pay for what you will use.

Additionally, it's important that you pay attention to the typical scene that inhabits certain lines. You're going to feel out-of-place if you take your family of four on a Carnival cruise, only to be shocked that on this college-catering ship line, you're over twice the average age.

In general, the biggest demographic differences are going to be age, if we make the assumption that the older you are, the more money you are likely to have. Thus, younger people will be on Carnival, and older, wealthier retirees will be on Crystal, and the middle class families with children will be on Disney.

To a large extent, on cruises you get what you pay for. If you want individualized attention and all expenses included, you should be willing to pay more. If you're a more low-key customer, and you don't need the extra expenses anyway, a cheaper ship is best for you.

Here are some popular cruise lines, and relevant information to know about each of them.

Discounts You Might Qualify For

Ask when you book your cruise if you think you might qualify : it never hurts to ask, and you might save hundreds on your cruise.

  • Groups
  • Veterans
  • Active Military
  • Teachers
  • Seniors
  • Frequent cruisers

Tip One: When You Book the Cruise Matters

You basically have two choices if you want to save when booking a cruise, either book early (about a year in advance) or at the last-minute. The rationale for booking last-minute is pretty basic: the cruise line doesn't get any money from holding an empty room.

In most cases, however, I would recommend booking early, and thinking very carefully about the dates you choose.

I paid over $300 more than every other departure date a couple years ago for a Holland America cruise that was on a date that many people had Spring Break. It's not fair, but cruise lines will absolutely hike the prices for prime times. Don't ask for New Years week off from work like every other employee, for example. Go the second or third week of January instead.

Of course, you can call in at the last minute and book a cheap cabin, but I'm going to let you in on a little secret: the best destinations on the best ships sell out. Always.

Instead, go the other extreme: long-term. Most of the major lines have itineraries on their websites for a year and a half, if not two years, from the current date. Don't wait until they jump the price when everyone starts buying. Book early, book cheaper.

Tip Two: Don't Let Them Nickel and Dime You

You might think you got a great deal, but until you read the fine print, and realize exactly what you're going to be charged for, the hundreds of little charges are going to add up and kill you financially.

  • Soft drinks are the most prevalent example. Every soft drink you order is an extra item on your bill. You probably won't be told unless you ask, either. Bring water flavoring from home or just drink tea and water. Soda is just wasted calories, anyway.
  • The personal treatment. Massages, manicures, and haircuts on cruises cost much more than their shore counterparts. There is absolutely no need for you to pay for these services on a ship. You should be walking around or on the shore, enjoying the cruise.
  • The Internet on the ship is expensive. Really expensive. Get on there for five minutes to check your email every couple of days, then get off. Again, cruises are about relaxing and visiting new places, not sitting in the internet lounge playing tetris (which I have seen people do).
  • The pictures those nice man takes are absolutely not free for you to purchase. They're usually $10 for an okay picture and a cheesy paper frame. Bring your own camera and get your photos developed at a pharmacy back at home.
  • Alcohol. I don't know why you would want to spend your cruise in a drunken haze, but according to this article, if you want alcohol, they'll probably let you get away with bringing a couple bottles of wine.
  • The special restaurants. There is really no reason you ever need to pay for food during your entire trip, yet most ships have these; you have to pay extra per person to eat here. But why, I ask you. The food is perhaps a little better, and the clientale a little more upscale. But on most mid to high priced ships, the food is already quite good. Honestly.

My personal goal when I go on a cruise is to spend absolutely nothing other than the price of the cruise. Difficult? Yes, but just about anything you would want to buy on vacation, whether on the ship or at the port, will be over-priced.

Tip Three: Shorebound Activities to Avoid

Do you know why port cities love it when cruise ships visit? It's not because they love the typical cruiser's North American or Western European ignorance and arrogance, and it's certainly not because the natives enjoy being treated as oddities. It's because tourism means money.

  • Do you really think you're getting a great deal on that t-shirt, just because you got "a special price"? You didn't. I guarantee it. Everything is overpriced at the ports, because the tourists are willing to pay the exorbant prices. I promise you don't need that plastic bead anklet. Walk past the shops and try to get to a less tourist-y area. Learn about their culture.

  • If you absolutely must buy something, do haggle over the price. Most tourists aren't used to being in a place where prices are negotiable, so bargain hard for what you want. You'll probably get what you want for it.

  • Skip the cruise-arranged excursions. It doesn't make much sense to pay $50 per person for a native to take you on a well-marked hike around the port. Instead, go exploring. Walk around, go on that hike, and actually learn something about the place you're visiting.
  • Even better, bring a bike.You'll leave the tourists behind that much faster, and really get more for your money during the limited time you have at each destination.

Try to only spend money on the shore if you are absolutely sure you need it, and it's not a tourist trap. The vacation is about the memories and pictures, not the trinkets you bring home.

Tip Four: Coming Back for Seconds (or Thirds or Fourths)

You're enjoying your cruise so much, you've already begun planning for the next one. Here are a few ideas for keeping the costs of this habit down.

  • Book another cruise while on your present one. This can substantially cut the price of the next cruise. Make sure to have your calendar with you, because tickets are often non-refundable, and you don't want to run into scheduling issues.
  • Consider how much time you actually spent inside your cabin. Some people find that the extra cost of paying for a cabin with a window and/or balcony was not worth the few hours they spent sleeping there, and nothing else. Consider booking an inside cabin next time.
  • If you enjoyed the cruise, make a point to book with the same line next time. Most cruises offer frequent cruiser programs and discounts, so take advantage of this opportunity.

Just an idea: why not skip the typical cruise destinations, and book your next cruise on a South American or Australian itinerary? It will have fewer tourists, and you can spend an unforgettable vacation in a less-visited part of the world!

Cruises Do Not Have to Be a Pointless Money Drain

If you approach them with the right attitude, cruises can be a great way to relax, travel effortlessly, and explore other countries and cultures. And to prevent them from becoming a big black hole for your money, plan ahead of time how much you are willing to spend.

If you heed my advice, you will never have to face that horrific moment at the end of your cruise, when you look at the bill and scream, "I spent what?!"

Chris Pirillo's Cruise Tips


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    • crazycat profile image


      10 years ago from Philippines

      Someday, I would want to have a break and be in a cruise. Sort of giving myself a reward. I always hear or read how expensive it is. Good that you enumerated options to less expensive ones.

    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      Really useful hub -thanks! I am considering my 1st cruise, actually my first ever organised tour. Want to do the trip from Moscow to St Petersburg - rivers wont make me seasick and Russia is still tough to travel independently in


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